Last night, when Gulwali Passerlay went to take out the bins he found himself breaking down.
“It was so cold out there. I thought how cold it must have been in that sea. A pregnant woman, children, men in that cold water. When I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep for thinking about them in the water.”
Watching the tragedy in the Channel unfold, in which 17 men, seven women and three children died, and two people were taken to hospital with hypothermia, I thought of a passage in Gulwali’s book.
The Lightless Sky tells the story of his 12,000-mile journey from Afghanistan to safety in the UK in lorries and on a dangerously overcrowded boat.
“I have heard somewhere that drowning is a peaceful death,” he writes. “Whoever said that hasn’t watched men soil themselves with fear aboard an overcrowded, broken-down boat in the middle of a raging Mediterranean storm.”
Gulwali’s journey across the sea took 49 hours, with 120 other people on a boat built for 30. He was just 12 years old.
“I was very, very scared,” says Gulwali, now 27 and living in Kettering, Northants. “I knew I was face to face with death. You see your death.
“You know you are going to die. Those people in the Channel, they would have known their death and, for them, help was not there.
“I made it out alive only because the Greek coastguard rescued us. We were lucky – if they hadn’t, our boat would have capsized. It was holed on every side.”
His own eventual journey across the Channel was in the back of a refrigerated lorry, carrying bananas and a terrified child. It was his 100th attempt to cross from France to Britain.
Had the lorry driver switched the refrigerator on, Gulwali would have died like the people in the cold sea on Wednesday, on the last leg of his journey.
“People ask ‘why do they come to the UK’? And I ask, ‘why not’?” Gulwali says.
“England says refugees should stay in France. France says Italy. Italy says Greece who built a wall with Turkey who built a wall with Iran, which they say is a safe country.
“Who is going to take the responsibility for this crisis? Who is going to give people some hope?
“Instead, we say if these people die, it’s not our problem. If they drown, it’s tough. Turn the boats away.”
Gulwali’s journey began in eastern Afghanistan during the years of the war on terror. His father, a doctor, and beloved grandfather were killed in a firefight with American troops.
With an uncle in the Taliban, Gulwali and his brother Hazrat were called on to martyr themselves to avenge their father’s death.
The boys’ mother paid $8,000 to get them “to safety” in Europe. When the other option was watching your sons blow themselves up at an American army base, was she wrong?
Today, after a difficult start in the UK, her son has a Master’s degree from Coventry University, a family, is a published author and runs his own company.
We don’t yet know the stories of the 27 men, women and children who lost their lives. But we do know that getting in a flimsy boat on a freezing, wild sea felt like a better option than whatever they were leaving behind.
We know that the two rescued people – who are in critical care – are from Iraq and Somalia. French media are reporting that the dead are believed to be Iraqi or Iranian Kurds.
France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin described their boat as “extremely fragile… like a pool you blow up in your garden”.
We know that yesterday, despite almost certainly knowing the fate of the 27, more people set off on the same deadly journey. “If I went to Calais now, would I tell people not to cross?” Gulwali says.
“I would tell them if France will give you accommodation and a work visa you should stay. But if not? If the other option is to be sent home or stay in the hell of Calais… I can’t tell them not to cross.”
To understand why more and more people are making the crossing, we need to understand that government policy since 2010 has gradually shut down almost every single safe and legal route through which people could have had their asylum application considered before making that crossing.
The truth is that Britain doesn’t take anything like a fair share of refugees – we are one of the countries taking the fewest. Less than 1% of the refugees in the world.
But Boris Johnson ’s government was elected on the back of Brexit, and a promise to take back control of Britain’s borders. The less rosy post-Brexit Britain looks, the more hysterical tough talk about our borders we should expect.
So, the Government’s response to a human tragedy will be to ratchet up even further the anti-refugee sentiment.
It will be the excuse it needs to push through the most anti-refugee legislation – Priti Patel’s odious Borders Bill is currently going through Parliament – this country has ever seen.
It should be called the People Smugglers’ Bill. The price goes up every time a legal route disappears.
Somewhere deep down we know the answer is the exact opposite. To create safe and legal routes, and to find compassionate solutions.
To give people hope we will deal with them fairly. To take our fair share of refugees and use our international standing to support peace and tackle climate emergency.
Why did Gulwali come to the UK? For the most human of reasons. He had heard his brother had reached here. And because he had made a promise to his mum.
“When my brother and I fled Afghanistan, my mum said: ‘No matter how bad it gets, don’t come back, and hold on to each other’s hands’,” he says.
“So, when the smugglers separated us, the thing that kept me going on the journey was not letting my mum down.”
Now it is Gulwali’s turn to worry about his mother who is trapped in Afghanistan as the country starves. An unfolding crisis that will only lead to more desperate people setting off from the shores of northern France, as we drag our heels on taking refugees.
The deaths on Wednesday were an avoidable tragedy. And they are just the ones we know about.
Unless Britain changes course, the Channel risks becoming an ever-growing mass grave.